The 1996 championship battle was an exclusively Williams affair.
Benetton’s new charges could not emulate Schumacher’s feat of taking the fight to the Adrian Newey-designed Williams cars – even with the same Renault engines. And Schumacher found his first Ferrari to be woefully un-competitive – so much so that he ‘only’ won three times.
The season began with a fresh new look. Mandatory cockpit protection gave all the cars an unusual, ungainly appearance; the year kicked off at Melbourne in Australia for the first time ever; and on pole position was the rookie Jacques Villeneuve, son of Gilles, imported from Indy Car racing at Bernie Ecclestone’s behest.
He very nearly won his first race too, only dropping back later with oil pressure problems. Despite some early hiccups he made an impressive show of challenging Hill for the title, but fell at the last hurdle in Suzuka.
When it rained on Barcelona Schumacher capitalised and won his first race with Ferrari. But in slippery conditions at Monaco he crashed out – and almost everyone else retired as well during the race, leaving only four cars circulating at the chequer. Olivier Panis, in a Ligier, took his first and only win.
Champion Hill discovered Williams’ plans to drop him too late in the season to find a berth with a top team and joined Tom Walkinshaw’s Arrows team for 1997. Frentzen’s move from Sauber to Williams was confirmed.
During the winter former champion Alain Prost took over Ligier and renamed it after himself. He would be joined in 1997 by another all-new team with an ex-champion at the helm – Jackie Stewart.